By Shehan Jeyarajah
SAN ANTONIO – When Baylor sat at 2-8 in conference play in January, even the National Invitational Tournament started to look like a fading possibility. But the Bears defied the odds and booked their tickets to the Sweet 16 in Anaheim, Calif., after wins over Nebraska and Creighton on opening weekend.
Baylor opened the tournament with a matchup against a highly-touted Nebraska team that made the Tourney for the first time in 15 years. The Bears took care of business in a 74-60 blowout.
After hitting a layup on its opening possession, Nebraska missed nine straight shots to fall down 12-3 to Baylor just over nine minutes into the game.
The Cornhuskers shot a paltry 23.1 percent from the field in the first half, including missing all 11 of their three-point attempts. NU scored a season-low 16 points in the first half.
Baylor’s defense was the story in the first half, but the Bears could not take advantage with their offense. As a team, they shot only 33.3 percent in the first half but stayed ahead thanks to 20 free throw attempts on the way to a 29-16 first half advantage.
Nebraska caught fire in the second half, but Baylor did not budge. Nebraska forward Terran Petteway and guard Ray Gallegos each scored 13 points in the second frame and the Huskers shot 60.7 percent from the field and 40 percent from three.
Despite Nebraska’s hot shooting Baylor opened up a 20-point lead with only five minutes remaining in the game. Nebraska took one final swing, scoring 11 straight points in just over two minutes, but Baylor hit 10 free throws in the last 2:16 to ice the game.
Baylor took advantage of Nebraska’s lack of size in the second half. Senior forward Cory Jefferson finished with 10 points and three boards on 4-for-8 shooting.
Sophomore center Isaiah Austin added 13 points and three rebounds thanks to eight made free throws. The Bears shot 28 free throws in the second half. Jefferson finished with 16 points on the night. Junior forward Royce O’Neale finished with double-digit rebounds for the fourth time in five games. Senior guard Gary Franklin and junior guard Kenny Chery each added eight.
Petteway finished the game with 18 points but shot only 5-for-15 from the floor and missed all seven of his three-point attempts.
Outside of Petteway, guard Shavon Shields and Gallegos, the Cornhuskers scored only 11 points on 13 shot attempts.
After beating the Cornhuskers, the Bears prepared to face another Nebraska-based team, Creighton. The Bluejays were the most efficient offense in the country during the season, but Baylor did not seem to get the memo. The Bears crushed the Bluejays on both ends of the floor on the way to an 85-55 win to advance.
Jefferson went to work inside early, scoring Baylor’s first two baskets. Creighton came back to tie at 7-7, but it was all Baylor from there. The Bears went on a 19-2 run to push their lead to 26-9 with 9:26 left in the first half. Creighton went through a stretch of over eight minutes where it scored only one field goal.
The Bluejays went on a mini 7-3 run, but Baylor countered with an 11-4 run of their own to push their lead to 40-20 at halftime.
Creighton superstar Doug McDermott was held to only three points in the first half. The Bluejays shot 37.5 percent as a team over that stretch.
“We know that [McDermott] is a leading scorer in the country and best player in the country,” senior guard Brady Heslip said. “He’s absolutely vital to their teams’ scoring and their success. We just had to do our best job of being there when he catches it so he doesn’t look to attack or have an open shot.”
O’Neale, Heslip and Chery combined to hit all seven of their three-point attempts in the half. O’Neale added six assists on Baylor’s 14 field goals, more than Creighton had as a team.
Creighton righted its offense for stretches in the second half, but it was too little too late. Three-point specialist Ethan Wragge nailed two three-pointers to cut the lead to 19, but Baylor responded from there.
From 15:49 to 10:24 left in the game, Baylor went on a 14-5 run to push its lead out to an insurmountable 28 points.
Baylor’s big men dominated the second half. Austin, Jefferson and sophomore forward Rico Gathers combined for 20 points and 10 rebounds on 8-for-10 shooting. After shooting over 63 percent in the first half, the Bears actually improved their percentage to 64 percent in the second.
McDermott, the leading scorer in college basketball, finished the night with 15 points and only two rebounds on 7-for-14 shooting, but most came in garbage time when the game was all but decided. Guard Austin Chatman was the only other player in double-figures for the Bluejays.
“I thought their slides in the zone to take away Doug and Ethan were a little different than what they’ve done in the past,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “The reality of it is when you try to go down low against Isaiah Austin, that’s a challenge because of his length.”
All five Baylor starters finished in double-figures. Austin and Heslip each had 17 points on a combined 13-for-19 shooting. O’Neale put up 10 points, five rebounds, eight assists and two steals in under 30 minutes.
Gathers added a game-high nine rebounds in only 16 minutes. After the win, Baylor will move on to the Sweet Sixteen to play Wisconsin in Anaheim, Calif. The Badgers are coming off of tournament wins against American University and Oregon in its first two games, and has won 11 of its last 13 games.
“Wisconsin is a great team,” head coach Scott Drew said. “You play anybody in the Sweet Sixteen, you know it’s going to be a great team and a great coach.”
The Bears and Badgers will play at 6:47 p.m. on Thursday in Anaheim. The game will be nationally broadcast on TBS.